FCC considers free Internet access

Members of the FCC are considering a requirement that the winner in an upcoming government-auctioned spectrum be required to offer free Internet access to most of the country. The commission is likely to vote on the proposal on June 12.

It is uncertain when the auction will be held, and details must still be worked out, FCC spokesman Rob Kenny told the Associated Press. However, he said the resulting network must reach 50 percent of the population four years after the winner gets a license and then 95 percent after 10 years.

The winning bidder would provide free high-speed service on a small portion of the spectrum that potentially could be available on millions of wireless phones and laptops, Kenny said.

Jessica Zufolo, a telecom analyst with Medley Global Advisors, told the AP that the plan is “risky.” While the plan is “hugely laudable and really fulfills a lot of public policy objectives of both Congress and the FCC, from a business standpoint it’s very difficult to justify,” she said.

Two years ago, the commission rejected such an idea, saying the proposal meant giving the airwaves to a company without it bidding against other carriers for the rights. Supporters of the plan, however, argue it would widen competition in a market dominated by wireless carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

“If you have a service where you can have competitive access to different handsets, that is going to be very attractive compared to a wireless industry that makes you have to sign up with AT&T if you want an iPhone” Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and chief executive of the public interest group Media Access Project, told the news service.

Schwartzman, however, acknowledged the technology is still in the laboratory stage and infrastructure costs to deploy a network in urban and very rural areas could be high. However, he said it’s worth the risk.

Earlier this year, the FCC tried to auction a portion of spectrum in which a winning bidder would have been required to build a nationwide emergency communications network for public safety agencies. There were no bids.